Game 6 Preview; BYU

The Houston Cougars look to win their sixth straight game to open the season as they host perhaps their toughest opponent to date, the BYU Cougars (4-2) at Reliant Stadium this Saturday. Game time is set for 2:30pm (CST) and will be broadcast nationally on ESPNews.

BYU is led by head coach Bronco Mendenhall (80-31 in 9 seasons), who serves as his own defensive coordinator. The Cougars from Provo, Utah are a physically tough, hard-nosed team who haven't finished any worse than 30th in the nation in total yards allowed over the past six seasons with this season being no different. Through six games the Cougars are holding opponents to only 347 total yards per game which ranks 26th nationally. Opponents are rushing for 150 yards per game on average (55th) while passing for a meager 196 yards (23rd). Of course playing a triple-option team like Georgia Tech (as they did last Saturday) can skew the stats both ways. Tech rushed the ball for 242 yards while passing for only 158. Take away the Tech stats and they've held five adversaries to an average of 133 yards rushing and a still impressive 203 through the air. The most important defensive stat is that they're only allowing opponents to score 17.3 points per game, which is 15th nationally.

The Coogs offense will no doubt face its toughest test this Saturday against Mendenhall's 3-4 based scheme. When analyzing a defense, it always starts up front and BYU has some monsters along the line, Eathyn Manumaleuna in particular. The 6-foot-2 inch 305 pound nose tackle is like many BYU student-athletes, in that he's a 25 year old redshirt senior who's spread out his time in Provo, first starting all 13 games at the nose as a true freshman (in 2007) before taking three years off to serve a Mormon mission in Oklahoma City. In all, he's started 44 games, including 31 at nose and while he doesn't have eye-popping stats (31 total tackles including 17 solo with 4 tackles-for-loss), the mammoth Samoan is nearly impossible to uproot making it very difficult to establish a between the tackles running game. Backing up Manumaleuna is 6'2, 308 pound Marques Johnson, who has 14 tackles in 6 games. Alongside the pair at the two defensive end spots are Bronson Kaufusi (6'7, 282, So.) and Remington Peck (6'4, 250, So.). While both are sound in the fundamentals of tackling (Peck has 24 tackles with Kaufusi adding 21) it's in pass defense that Kaufusi must be accounted for, as he has 4 passes broken up (PBU) mainly from reading the opposing quarterback's eyes and using his massive wing-span to bat them down, much like the Texans J.J. Watt often does. Also remember that defensive ends in a 3-4 hold the same responsibilities as defensive tackles do in a 4-3, which is to mainly occupy blockers allowing linebackers to fill in the gaps, creating chaos in the offensive backfield.

As good as BYU's down linemen are, the strength of their defense is no doubt their linebacking core, led by outside rush backer Kyle Van Noy (6'3, 245, Sr.) whom many say is a potential NFL first round pick in the 2014 draft. What makes him special as a pro prospect is his versatility as both a pass rusher off the edge or in coverage off of a zone blitz as he's a great tackler in one-on-one situations in space. He's started 29 games through three seasons plus and has 25 career sacks along with 54.5 tackles-for-loss, 11 forced fumbles, 6 interceptions and 3 blocked kicks added for good measure. The other outside backer is Alani Fua (6'5, 228, Jr.) who excels as much as Van Noy in coverage, maybe even more-so as he's tied for the team lead with 7 passes broken up to go along with his 27 total tackles and 2 sacks. Last week against Georgia Tech he intercepted a pass and rambled 51 yards for a score as his fourth quarter pick-6 changed the momentum of the game in their 38-20 victory. The inside linebackers are Uani Unga (6'1, 233, Sr.) and Austen Jorgenson (6'2, 239, Sr.), though Tyler Beck (6'1, 220) could replace Jorgenson as he started the first few games before being sidelined. Unga leads the defense with 56 tackles with Mendenhall being quoted earlier this season as saying that he (Unga) may be the best inside linebacker he's ever coached. Beck had 17 tackles including 2 for loss before being injured as Jorgenson is more effective as a run-stopper, filling the gaps as he's third on the team in total tackles with 37.

BYU's front seven is effective in stopping opposing running games while applying pressure in the pass game due to the "games" they play up front, mainly via various stunts and twists with Unga and Van Noy often blitzing through the A-gaps. Houston's offensive line must be able to communicate with one another in order to pick up these blitzes. One concern I have is the switching of DeAnthony Sims and Rowdy Harper as the bigger Sims (6'3, 320) moved to left tackle with the more athletic Harper (6'6, 295) moving inside to guard last week against Memphis. Though head coach Tony Levine rarely talks about injuries, Harper being ‘nicked up' with a knee injury could have forced his move to the inside as your tackles need to have quick feet in order to move faster laterally holding off quicker rushers off the edge as to avoid the holding penalties that slower offensive linemen commit. One such instance occurred last week as a holding penalty on Sims wiped out a 12 yard TD run by Kenneth Farrow. Speaking of the physical power back, it's imperative that Farrow and the more fleet of foot Ryan Jackson establish the run early in order to keep the BYU front seven from teeing off on QB John O'Korn. The Coogs are averaging 188 yards per game this season (49th) after rushing for only 38 against a physical Memphis defensive line. Alongside Sims and Harper, center Bryce Redman (6'1, 285, Jr.), right guard Kevin Forsch (6'3, 307, Sr.) and right tackle Zach Johnson (6'6, 301, So.) must do a better job run blocking (and not committing penalties) than last week or the Coogs offense could become too one dimensional. Having Ty Cloud (6'4, 314, R-Sr.) and his 26 career starts at LG contributing more would be a massive bonus especially depth wise, but it has not happened so far this season as he still seems to be recovering from pre-season lower leg and head injuries as he's played sparingly over the past few games upon his return. In all, even though the QBs have been pressured, the O-line has only allowed 5 sacks through 5 games which is tied for 11th nationally.

If the running game isn't clicking early, Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham may have to use the quick passing game over the intermediate portion of the field earlier than usual to loosen up BYU's aggressive defensive line. While BYU's front seven can bring it, their back four are vulnerable in terms of the passing game in their zone schemes. O'Korn and his receivers must be patient as there are holes in BYU's zone which must be exploited if the Coogs are to see any success offensively. The true freshman QB can't lock in on his receivers though as BYU's front is good at batting passes down (mainly the 6'7 Kaufusi as previously mentioned). Inside receivers Deontay Greenberry (39 receptions for 606 yards with 3 TDs) and Daniel Spencer (18, 240, 4) must run precise routes with O'Korn hitting them in stride or where only they can catch it. Outside receivers Markeith Ambles (7 for 88), Xavier Maxwell (16, 177, 2) and Larry McDuffy (12 for 71) must step their games up and catch even tough passes from O'Korn as drops put the freshman QB in too many difficult 3rd and long situations. BYU's starting corners of Robertson Daniel (6'1, 198, Jr.) and Skye PoVey (5'11, 200, Sr.) don't have an interception between them though both do have 2 pass break-up's each and are sure tacklers as Daniel has 2 forced fumbles. KAT safety Daniel Sorensen (6'2, 208, Sr.) will probably be responsible for holding Greenberry in check as his 7 pass breakups are tied for first on the team. Craig Bills (6'1, 205, Jr.) has contributed 5 pass breakups from his free safety spot with nickel-back Blake Morgan (5'11, 195, Sr.) adding 26 total tackles. O'Korn will have his hands full with this experienced BYU secondary no doubt, but has the toughness and the ability to create something from nothing (as in his two-point conversion flip to Farrow after almost being sacked) that could be the wildcard Saturday. Speaking of wildcards, fellow UH true freshman QB Greg Ward could also throw a monkey wrench in Mendenhall's defense but needs to see the field more than last week, particularly earlier in the game for more than a play or two here or there. Depending on how the game is going I'd like to see Ward get a series to test BYU's edge rush as it will be too difficult to establish a run game up the middle, in my opinion.

When BYU has the ball it's all about their QB, true sophomore Taysom Hill under first year coordinator Robert Anae. Last season, Hill's first collegiate pass was for an 18-yard TD against Washington State in their season opener and he won his only two games as a starter before injuring a knee midway through the season. The 6'2 220 pounder has rushed for 644 yards (with 7 TDs) on only 90 carries, including rushing for a school record 259 yards earlier this season against TU. Each time he rushes he averages 7.2 yards per carry and averages 107 rushing yards per game in their read option spread based scheme. Though they want to establish a power (and lateral) running game first and foremost, the Cougars will dink-and-dunk their way down the field behind Hill as he's becoming more accurate as the season progresses as he completed 19 of his 27 passes last week for 244 yards and a score. For the season he's completing only 47 percent of his passes (90 for 191) while averaging 210 passing yards per game with 5 interceptions to 5 TDs through the air. While ranking 83rd nationally in passing, their ground attack is ranked 13th as they average 262 yards for a total of 473 (30th). While only averaging 29 points per game overall (69th), they've averaged 36.5 points per game in their four victories and 35 per game in dominating their past three opponents (outscoring Middle Tennessee, Utah St. and Georgia Tech 106 to 44). This no doubt will be an interesting matchup going against a Houston defense allowing only 19 points per game, 22nd nationally.

After Hill, BYU's top threat rushing is running back Jamaal Williams (6'0, 200, So.), who averages 108 yards per game (543 yards on 107 carries in 5 games). Fellow backs and Paul Lasike (6'0, 227, Jr.) and Algernon Brown (6'1, 219, Fr.) receive a few carries per game to give Williams a breather as Lasike only has 40 carries in 6 games (for 166 yards) with Brown at 31 and 136 respectively. All three have one TD on the ground each to William's 7 as their redzone scoring (17 TDs in 30 trips) could be a key to this game. In stopping the Cougars of BYU from gashing them up front, the Cougars from Houston must stack the box and make Hill beat them through the air. Of course this is much easier said than done considering UH has had problems with mobile QBs and with the zone read option scheme in the past.

Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs is coming off a masterful effort in which his team held Memphis to only 15 points on 5 field goals (with 3 coming in the redzone). The Coogs are 26th nationally in rush defense, allowing opponents to run for only 126 yards per game behind a front four of Trevor Harris (6'5, 235, Jr.), Joey Mbu (6'3, 312, Jr.), Tomme Mark (6'3, 288, So.) and Eric Eiland (6'2, 235, So.) with Eric Braswell (6'5, 268, Jr.) coming off injury and Cameron Malveaux (6'6, 252, RFr.) in reserve at end and B.J. Singleton (6'4, 285, RFr.) and Jeremiah Farley (6'0, 283, Jr.) at the tackle spots. Harris leads the front four in terms of tackles-for-loss with 4.5 with freshman sensation Tyus Bowser (6'3, 225) leading the way with 3.5 sacks (from his rush end spot) with Farley not too far behind with 3 and Mbu with 2. They'll have to do a much better job in "setting the edge" than they did last week against Memphis as far as run defense is concerned. It will be up to the linebacking trio of Derrick Mathews (6'0, 214, Jr.), Efrem Oliphant (6'1, 230, Jr.) and Steven Taylor (6'0, 211, RFr.) at the Mike (middle), Will (weakside) and Sam (strongside) spots respectively to not only fill their assigned gaps, but to set the edge as well as they must keep Hill in the pocket. While Mathews has been the lynchpin of the defense (leading the team with 49 total and 30 solo tackles), it's Oliphant that has surprised the most with 42 total and 30 solo tackles including 4 for loss, 2 forced fumbles and a sack, while Taylor leads the club with 5 pass breakups. If the Cougars can hold BYU's offense to short gains on 1st and 2nd downs they will inevitably put the game on the shoulders, or more particularly, the arm of Hill.

Houston's defensive line will be facing a BYU offensive line that's struggled in protecting Hill in the passing game as they've surrendered 14 sacks (tied for 91st). Their starting tackles Michael Yeck (6'8, 292, Jr.) and De'Ondre Wesley (6'7, 330, Jr.) have switched spots throughout the season with Yeck starting this week at left with Wesley at right tackle for the second consecutive week. Their guards are Solomone Kafu (6'2, 315, Jr.) at left and Brayden Kearsly (6'4, 295, Fr.) at right with Ed Fusi (6'0, 317, Jr.)  at center. All but Kafu are first year starters. Kyle Johnson (6'4, 295, Fr.), Ryker Mathews (6'6, 309, So.), and Manakki Vaitai (6'3, 317, Jr.) at guard, Terrance Alletto (6'3, 292, So.) at center, and Brock Stringham (6'6, 292, Jr.) at tackle have all seen plenty of time as the staff continues to mix and match looking for the right combination. With their line struggling as much as this season, BYU is using more 2-back sets leaving one of them in (usually either the bigger Lasike or Brown) to help out in pass protection. Along with the 2-back sets they'll use Kaneakua Friel (6'5, 261, Sr.) in as a blocking TE. Anae is also having Hill roll out of the pocket more in order to give more time for some deeper developing routes downfield.

If BYU is able to connect on the deeper routes off of play-action, the receivers most likely catching the ball will be Cody Hoffman (18 receptions for 311 yards with 1 TD), J.D. Falslev (15, 185, 1), Mitch Mathews (14, 253, 3), Skyler Ridley (13 for 126) and Ross Apo (7 for 109) with Brett Thompson (9 for 132) as a pass-catching tight end. While Falslev and Ridley are smaller slot receivers, if I were Gibbs I'd be more concerned with the size of Hoffman (6'4, 210), Mathews (6'6, 206), Apo (6'3, 207) and Thompson (6'3, 216) as the Cougars secondary just doesn't match up well on paper. If BYU's running game is working early, look for Hill to burn the Cougars deep especially using Mathews and Hoffman who average 18.1 and 17.3 yards per reception respectively. Look for Gibbs to employ more zone looks as cornerbacks Zach McMillian (5'10, 178, Sr.) and Thomas Bates (5'10, 183, Sr.) are better tacklers coming down hill (with 21 and 18 solo tackles respectively which are third and fourth on the defense) than they are pure cover corners. Nickel back William Jackson (6'1, 175, So.) must do a better job as he was burned numerous times last week in coverage over the intermediate zone areas. Ball hawking safeties Trevon Stewart (5'9, 192, So.) and Adrian McDonald (5'10, 191, So.) must not get caught looking into BYU's backfield as they must help in coverage as well.

The battle of special teams will definitely match strength versus strength when it comes to the Cougars (of BYU) kickoff returns, which ranks 10th nationally as they average 27.7 yards per return (behind sophomore RB Adam Hine's 32.2 average on 10 returns), while Houston is only allowing 20 yards per return which is 44th nationally. BYU also has a solid punt return game as they average over 12 yards per return behind Falslev's 12.1, including a TD return of 71 yards while UH has only allowed 4 punt returns all season, for a negative nine yards (which is 1st in the nation). Both punters are solid as Houston's Richie Leone is averaging 41 yards on his 22 punts but more importantly has pinned the opposing offense inside their 20-yard line 13 times already this season. BYU's punter Scott Arellano has pinned its opponents inside the 20 12 times on 39 punts (for a 41.2 yard average). One huge stat that jumped out at the page to me is that Arellano has had three of his punts blocked this season, which probably has Coogs special team coordinator Jamie Christian licking his chops. BYU is allowing 7 yards on punt returns and 20 in kickoff returns on average, but this has been a weak point of UH's special teams unit as they average only 4.5 yards per punt return (99thh nationally). Damian Payne, while at least not fumbling, has to be able to solidly return them instead of "dancing," or moving east/west instead of north. True freshman Demarcus Ayers has been solid as he's averaging 24.8 yards on 13 kickoff returns, though he may not be needed much Saturday as BYU kicker Justin Sorensen has 19 touchbacks on 37 kickoffs. Both teams also have solid field goal kickers if it should come down to the last second as Sorensen has connected on 9 of his 11 attempts this season and 31 of 51 for his career, though he does struggle from 40 yards on out as he's connected on only 5 of 16 such attempts. Houston's Leone meanwhile has connected on 10 of his 13 attempts in his only season as the place kicker.

Final analysis

Overall this looks to be an exciting game as both Cougar teams love to run a fast paced, up tempo no-huddle scheme that snaps the ball within 20 seconds. BYU averages 85 plays per game while Houston averages around 75. The key for Houston will be how successful its defense is on 1st and 2nd down as BYU has converted only 25 percent of its 3rd downs when put in 3rd and long predicaments (8 or more yards) as they are 4 for 34 this season. Offensively, Houston will have to be much more efficient running the ball as another 38 yard outing such as last week's output versus Memphis will place too much pressure on O'Korn as the Cougars offensive line hasn't seen a pass rush like what they're about to face come Saturday. Houston's defense is predicated on forcing turnovers as they've forced at least two in thirteen straight games and if they don't accomplish this on Saturday I don't see how they can stop BYU's offense from moving up and down the field putting points on the board, while BYU defensively has scored a TD in three straight games which will be the determining factor. Plus BYU hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points in 12 straight games and unfortunately I think the streak reaches 13 after Saturday.

Final Prediction: BYU 28 Houston 17

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